#14/13 Marquette Golden Eagles (11-1 overall) vs. Vanderbilt Commodores (8-4 overall)
Thursday Night—8PM CST
Bradley Center – Milwaukee, Wis.
TV: ESPN2 and ESPN3.com (Dave O'Brien and Jimmy Dykes with the call)
After a "refreshing" break for Christmas, Marquette Head Coach Buzz Williams and his Golden Eagles return to the Bradley Center court to take on preseason top-25 opponent Vanderbilt.
The Golden Eagles are currently ranked No. 14/13 in the country and stand at 11-1 overall heading into their last non-conference game before BIG EAST play begins. MU knocked off Milwaukee last Thursday night before the players and coaches went home for the holidays—something Williams said was much needed.
"It's the only time from Labor Day until the end of the season that we get 72 consecutive hours off—away from one another," said Williams. "I think it's really refreshing. I think it's refreshing for our staff [and] for our players."
With the coaches and players back from break they now find a tall task at hand with a struggling but hungry Vanderbilt team coming to town before opening with a tough slate at the beginning of BIG EAST play.
"[If] you look at the next two weeks, we will learn a lot about ourselves," said Williams.
The Commodores have four losses on the season—including home losses to Cleveland State and Indiana State. However, there is no doubting their talent level, as the senior-laden Commodores held a preseason top-10 ranking.
"I think they're one of the best teams in the country," said Williams. "[They're] very sound in what they do on both ends of the floor. I think they're really, really good."
The Commodores posses the size, skill and experience necessary to be a legitimate Final Four/Title contender but the pieces haven't quite come together yet. The main reason for the inconsistent performance has been a hit-or-miss effort from the offense
In their eight wins, the Commodores have posted an average offensive efficiency of 117.11 (1.17 points-per-possession), including an 89.5 rating in a win over Oregon State. Meanwhile, it drops tremendously—to 86.08—in their four losses. For comparison's sake, Florida is tops in the country at 120.8 and Vandy's figure in wins would place them in the top-five nationally.
The good news for the Golden Eagles is they are allowing an average offensive efficiency of 89.5 and the highest they allowed was 106.9 (in the Washington game). However, a clear argument could be made that none of the teams' possess the firepower that Vanderbilt does.
Leading the charge is shooting guard John Jenkins. The junior sharpshooter has scored a three-point field goal in 35 consecutive games and leads the SEC in scoring at 20.6 points per game. Jenkins tied a career-high in threes made with 7 against Lafayette on December 21.
The Golden Eagles will likely key on him once again, as they were able to hold him to 4-for-21 shooting in last season's game, including a 2-15 effort from beyond the arc. While MU can be commended for their effort against Jenkins, it should be noted that the rest of the team did shoot 62 percent.
If you consider Jenkins to be Vandy's Batman, then senior Jeffrey Taylor must be Robin. The six-foot-seven forward averages 17.9 points and 5.8 rebounds per game. Taylor has been particularly hot his last four games, where he is averaging 24.8 points per game and is shooting 66 percent from the field in those contests. Like Marquette's Jae Crowder, Taylor poses a threat both inside and out.
Even though Jenkins and Taylor receive most of the accolades, it's not as though they are doing it alone.
Senior guard Brad Tinsley joins Jenkins in the Commodore backcourt. The six-foot-three senior provides a steady ball handler and passer while keeping the defense honest with a three-point shot of his own. Tinsley scores in double-digits on average (10.2) and had a 15-point effort last season against MU that included eight assists to just one turnover.
VU also brings in a sophomore along with a pair of talented freshman off the bench in the backcourt. Kyle Fuller and Kedren Johnson provide relief for Tinsley at the point while Dai-Jon Parker has played more off the ball. Parker ranked No. 38 in last year's Scout Top 100 rankings while Johnson checked in at No. 100.
In the frontcourt, Vanderbilt has been hobbled by a major injury. Center Festus Ezeli sprained his knee in the offseason and missed the first six games of the season. Since returning he played just 21 and 22 minutes in the following two games before sitting out the last two. It is unclear how much action he will see.
Ezeli, at six-foot-11 would present a big matchup issue for the Golden Eagles, who are still finding their way with Chris Otule out to injury. Ezeli scored 12 points, grabbed four rebounds and blocked three shots in the last matchup but was largely neutralized by Otule who scored 12 points of his own.
In his place, senior Steve Tchiengang will get his 11th start of the season. Tschiengang provides bulk inside (6-9, 255lb) to replace some of what Ezeli brings to the table. He was a perfect 4-for-4 against MU last year, en route to a 10 point, nine rebound effort.
Former Marquette recruiting target Lance Goulbourne also starts in the Vanderbilt frontcourt. A lengthy combo-forward, Goulbourne led Vandy in rebounding last season and leads them again this season at 7.3 per game. He has scored in double-figures in seven games this season and has attempted 46 free throws (2nd on team behind Taylor).
Rod Odom also provides relief off the bench at the forward position.
With all of the talent and experience (6 seniors) that Vanderbilt brings to the Bradley Center on Thursday night, it's hard to expect anything less than a dogfight.
If Marquette is able to limit Vanderbilt to 1 point-per-possession or less, the Golden Eagles should at least have a chance at winning. If MU can hit close to 50 percent of their twos and 40 percent of their threes while keeping the clamps on Jenkins, there is a good chance they can finish up non-conference play at 12-1.
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